On Women’s Attire in The Sudan

Soon we’ll know whether or not Lubna Hussein’s principled argument that the Koran does not regulate women’s attire is a winner or loser in the Sudan.

Battle in Sudan Over Women’s Dress

By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
The New York Times
Published: September 6, 2009

NAIROBI, Kenya — This is not about pants, Lubna Hussein insists. It is about principles.

Ashraf Shazly/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Lubna Hussein with supporters gathering outside the court in Khartoum upon her arrival for a hearing on Friday.

A woman should be able to wear what she wants and not be publicly whipped for it, says Mrs. Hussein, a defiant Sudanese journalist, and on Monday her belief will be put to the test.

Mrs. Hussein has been charged in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, with indecent dress, a crime that carries a $100 fine and 40 lashings. She was arrested in July, along with 12 other women, who were caught at a cafe wearing trousers.

Sudan is partially ruled by Islamic law, which emphasizes modest dress for women. Mrs. Hussein, 34, has pleaded not guilty and is daring the Sudanese authorities to punish her.

“I am Muslim; I understand Muslim law,” Mrs. Hussein said in an interview. “But I ask: what passage in the Koran says women can’t wear pants? This is not nice.”

Mrs. Hussein even printed up invitation cards for her initial court date in July and sent out e-mail messages asking people to witness her whipping, if it came to that. She said she wanted the world to see how Sudan treated women.

Hundreds of Sudanese women — many wearing pants — swarmed in front of the court where the trial was supposed to take place, protesting that the law was unfair. Twice now, the trial has been postponed. Some of the other women arrested with Mrs. Hussein have pleaded guilty and were lashed as a result. Past floggings have been carried out with plastic whips that leave permanent scars.

“The flogging, yes, it causes pain,” Mrs. Hussein said. “But more important, it is an insult. This is why I want to change the law.”

The law in contention here is Article 152 of Sudan’s penal code. Concisely stated, the law says that up to 40 lashes and a fine should be assessed anyone “who commits an indecent act which violates public morality or wears indecent clothing.”

The question is: what exactly is indecent clothing?

In Sudan, some women wear veils and loose fitting dresses; others do not. Northern Sudanese, who are mostly Muslim, are supposed to obey Islamic law, while southern Sudanese, who are mostly Christian, are not. Mrs. Hussein argues that Article 152 is intentionally vague, in part to punish women.

Rabie A. Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman, said the law was meant for the opposite reason, to “protect the people.”

“We have an act controlling the behavior of women and men so the behavior doesn’t harm others, whether it’s speech or dress or et cetera,” he said.

But, he insisted, Mrs. Hussein must have done something else to run afoul of the authorities, besides wearing pants.

“You come to Khartoum and you will see for yourself,” he said. “Many women, in offices and wedding ceremonies, wear trousers.”

“Thousands of girls wear the trousers,” he added.

Asked what other offenses Mrs. Hussein may have committed, Mr. Atti said that the case file was secret and that he did not know.

Mrs. Hussein countered that she did not do anything else that might have violated the law, and that countless people from inside and outside Sudan are supporting her.

“It’s well known that Sudanese women are pioneers in the history of women’s rights in this region, and that we won our rights a long time ago because of our awareness, open mind, good culture and struggle,” she said.

The last time Sudan’s courts handled a case that attracted such international attention, they found a compromise solution. A British schoolteacher faced up to 40 lashes and six months in prison for allowing her students to name a class teddy bear Muhammad, which was perceived as an insult to Islam. But after being sentenced to 15 days in jail, she was soon pardoned by the Sudanese president.

A widow with no children, Mrs. Hussein is a career journalist who recently worked as a public information assistant for the United Nations in Sudan. She quit, she said, because she did not want to get the United Nations embroiled in her case. But Sudan, given its renewed interest in normalizing relations with the United States, might be reluctant to draw much international ire by harshly punishing her.

Protesters are expected to come out on her behalf again when Mrs. Hussein returns to court Monday morning. She says her family is also behind her.

“My mother supports me,” she said, “but she is worried for me and prays for me.”

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